Interview: James Monroe Iglehart of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Injects Some Holiday Cheer into the Heartwarming Musical

Tony winner Iglehart serves as Creative Producer for William Finn & Rachel Sheinkin's riotously funny show running November 29 to December 24 in Palo Alto

By: Nov. 27, 2023
Interview: James Monroe Iglehart of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Injects Some Holiday Cheer into the Heartwarming Musical
Interview: James Monroe Iglehart of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Injects Some Holiday Cheer into the Heartwarming Musical
        James Monroe Iglehart, Creative Producer of
       The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
                     at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

There’s busy, there’s unbelievably busy, and then there’s James Monroe Iglehart busy. The Tony-winning actor was all set to direct The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley when one of the four(!) high-profile musicals he’s starred in this past year was fast-tracked to Broadway. So, even as he’s appearing eight times a week as King Arthur in the hit Broadway revival of Spamalot, he is continuing to act as Creative Producer on Spelling Bee, having handed his directorial duties over to Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award-winner Meredith McDonough.

TheatreWorks’ mounting of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was conceived by Iglehart as a jolly treat for the holidays. In this funny and heartwarming musical comedy, middle-school misfits personified by adult actors face off in a spelling showdown, vying for glory and a coveted slot at the National Spelling Bee. While wrestling with words like “crepuscular” and “hasenpfeffer,” this ragtag bunch finds chaos, heartbreak and self-discovery along the way. At each performance a few audience members are selected to be a part of the fun as competitors, adding a layer of unpredictability to the show.

Iglehart is doing all he can to shepherd Spelling Bee from afar because he has deep connections with both TheatreWorks and the show itself. The Bay Area native worked his way up through the ranks at TheatreWorks before being cast as “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney in the 2006 San Francisco production of Spelling Bee that led to his Broadway debut in the same role. He has gone on to appear in numerous other Broadway hits such as Hamilton and Chicago, and won a Tony Award for his deliciously outsized performance as the Genie in Disney’s long-running Aladdin. Recently, he starred as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls at the Kennedy Center and as Phil in the world premiere of Disney’s Hercules at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Just last month he concluded a run starring as jazz legend Louis Armstong in the new musical A Wonderful World in Chicago. It’s clear that all the hard work he’s been putting in over the years to diligently hone his craft is now paying off in spades.

I caught up with Iglehart by phone the other day as he was literally racing through the streets of midtown Manhattan to make it to the St. James Theater in time for half-hour call at Spamalot after a voiceover session for his Disney Junior animated series “Superkitties” had run overtime. (Did I mention that the man is just a little over-committed these days?) Even so, he was delightful and fully present, exuding the boundless energy, optimism and just plain kindness he is known for.

We talked about his original vision for this production of Spelling Bee, why the show means so much to him, some serendipitous turns his career has taken, and how grateful he is to TheatreWorks for giving him the training he needed to get to where he is. And as much as he’s enjoying his current wave of success, he’s already looking forward to taking on directing assignments so that he can mentor other talented performers on their way up. The following conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You were originally set to direct this production of Spelling Bee at TheatreWorks before your role shifted to Creative Producer. What exactly does that entail?

Being Creative Producer means that I picked the creative team – so the musical director, as well as the wonderful choreographer and the casting director -  and we put together the cast, with the exception of one. Our new director, Meredith McDonough, was able to pick our Barfee, but everybody else I cast in the show, and I also had a lot of influence on how the set was supposed to look, lighting, sound, the overall esthetic and feel of the show. Because it’s in the holiday schedule, we wanted it to have a holiday feel, even though the show is not a holiday show.

We wanted to make sure that when people came in, not only were they seeing Spelling Bee, but also feeling a little bit of the holidays. It’s a fantastic show, the cast is great, and everybody that we have working on the show is top-notch. Trust me, I’ve worked in many regional theaters and TheatreWorks is one of the top regional theaters in the country.   

Interview: James Monroe Iglehart of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Injects Some Holiday Cheer into the Heartwarming Musical
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's creative team conducts auditions for 
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(L to R) Choreographer Lee Ann Payne, Creative Producer James Monroe Iglehart,
Casting Director Jeffrey Lo & Music Director William Liberatore

How are you injecting a holiday feel into this production?

Well, there’s a specific line in the show “Have you ever been to a spelling bee in blank blank blank?” And so I thought that’d be a perfect place to put the line, ‘Have you ever been to a spelling bee at a holiday pageant before?’ Basically, the theme of the show is that the spelling bee was supposed to be one place and they had to cancel. And this wonderful theater, the Lucie Stern in Palo Alto, had a holiday pageant going on, but it wasn’t that night, so the spelling bee got to use the theater the one night they’re not doing their pageant.

You go back a long way with this show. I still remember your performance as Mitch Mahoney here in San Francisco in 2006. I loved how you gave the character such an unexpected mix of gruffness and sweetness.

Yes, that was really fun. I met the original Mitch, Derrick Baskin (who’s my best friend, it’s his birthday today, by the way!) doing Memphis in 2004, and I remember he told me he was going for this little show that he didn’t know if it was going to work, which happened to be the hit show The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When they were looking for a Mitch in San Francisco, they couldn’t find anybody, and he said, “Well, you should see my friend who lives there.” So they saw me and flew me out to New York for the final callback, and I got to do the show, not even imagining they would take my cast to Broadway. And that was my Broadway debut. This show really means a lot to me because it basically made my career.

Interview: James Monroe Iglehart of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Injects Some Holiday Cheer into the Heartwarming Musical
Chip (Dave J. Abrams) is amazed by overachiever Marcy (Mai Abe)
as Olive (Maia Campbell) looks on in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

As an actor in the show, what’s it like dealing with the unknowns that come with having audience members as some of the spelling bee contestants up there onstage with you? You never really know how that’s going to go, right?

No, you don’t, but I live for stuff like that to be perfectly honest. Improv is where I feel very comfortable, so the fact that I could be part of something like that was awesome. It excited me to have that unknown factor. I also knew [that as Mitch] I was the person who kind of had to make sure the regular people, The Civilians, acted normally. So you kind of talk to them a little bit, have a little bit of intimidation so they don’t know whether your character’s real or not, so they kind of behave. Most people knew how to behave, and if they didn’t, we got them out early. We had signals between me, [vice principal] Panch and [bee host] Rona, that if someone didn’t behave, we’d give them the first word and get them out quickly. [laughs]

You’re originally from the Bay Area. Were you a theater kid growing up?

Yeah, big time. I didn’t get to do as much as I wanted because I performed in church, I performed in school, I was in show choir, so I was in a lot of different things. I knew musical theater and I would go to shows with my parents in San Francisco and Oakland all the time, but it wasn’t until I got to high school that it really hit that, “Omigosh, I think this is what I really want to do.” In my senior year, I got to play Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and I was like, “Yep, that’s what I want to do!” [laughs] It put together everything that I love, from singing to dancing to acting, so it was really, really a perfect fit for me.

Is it true that you basically started your career at TheatreWorks?

Yes! I was doing stuff in college and got the opportunity to become Equity with the national tour of Showboat. It came to town in San Francisco and I auditioned, on an open call of all things, and got cast. When I got back to the Bay, I kept auditioning for TheatreWorks and started doing shows at a place called American Musical Theatre [of San Jose]. I had fun there, but it was at TheatreWorks where I actually honed my craft, where I really learned what it takes to do what I need to do to take me to Broadway. I knew I was a good performer and I was able to get good notices and stuff, but it was at TheatreWorks where I began to play different characters and actually find my place.

As you know, TheatreWorks has been struggling to recover its footing from the lingering effects of COVID, as have regional theaters all across the country.

Yes, and that’s another reason why I wanted to go back and help. Because without them letting me do things like Batboy, without them telling the creative team of Memphis, “Listen, you need to see James.”? They brought all of their principals from New York, with the exception of one. They cast me from seeing me at TheatreWorks, and the creative team kept me on and I go all the way to Broadway with Memphis.

So it was because me being at TheatreWorks at the right time, getting to be in shows like Batboy and Ragtime and Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. And Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues was the show I did right before I went to New York to do The Wiz [at New York City Center] in 2009 and then went on to Memphis. Every time I was about to go to Broadway, I would go back to TheatreWorks and do a show. Same thing - I went back to TheatreWorks and did Big River and the next thing I did after that was Aladdin, so you know … [laughs]

A few years ago, I interviewed TheatreWorks’ longtime casting director Leslie Martinson and I happened to ask her if when you first auditioned for her she could tell right away that you would have a successful career in theater. She said, “Yeah, it was immediate when James came in the door. He really brings his own soul to the work and that’s why people respond to him the way they do.” That’s quite a compliment.

It's just great. And they let me grow there. They saw something in me and let me build what I needed to build to be who I am. And it was really sweet of them because they didn’t have to, you know?

Leslie also said that although you were clearly very talented from the get-go, you then worked really hard to hone your craft to get to where you are now.

You know this is all I ever wanted to do, so I really wanted to make sure I was the best at what I could do and didn’t rest on my laurels. Not that the Bay Area’s a small pond, but when you get to New York, it’s the best of everywhere, not just the best of the Bay Area. Everyone’s coming from every part of the world to be here, so I was like “I got here, but now I’ve gotta step my game up so that I can stand out even here.”

And that took the training at TheatreWorks, because don’t get me wrong, I didn’t start off as a principal at TheatreWorks. When I first got there, I was in the chorus of Ragtime and I was the understudy. They saw something in me, but they didn’t make me a principal immediately. I had to work my way up the ranks. And when I did, I knew if I could make it there, it was time to go to New York.  

In just the past year, in addition to Spamalot you’ve starred in three other shows that have Broadway aspirations, which is pretty incredible. Do you know if any of those shows have plans yet for future productions?

I know that A Wonderful World definitely has plans for future productions. As of right now Hercules is in Germany, and they’re working on it and hopefully, fingers crossed, it’ll come in. With Guys and Dolls, I don’t know, especially with the revival of Guys and Dolls in London. But I know we had a wonderful time doing it, and if that revival doesn’t come in, I’m pretty sure someone will be thinking about our production that we did in DC cause we got a lot of good word on that show.

You’ve been at this for quite a long time, but your career suddenly seems to be firing on all cylinders right now. How does that feel?

It feels great. You know, it comes when it’s supposed to, the doors open when they are supposed to, and working at this pace I probably wasn’t ready for when everything first started. But I’ve worked my way up to get my mind, my spirit and my body ready for this. I’m right where I need to be at this time, and I’m really happy about it. And my wife and I talk about it all the time, you know. It’s all about patience, but it’s all about being prepared as well. I’ve prepared myself for a moment like this and I’m just going to ride it out as long as I can and enjoy it. And then also look towards the future when this isn’t the thing that everybody wants to see, you know try to pivot in different directions. Which is why I wanted to go back home and direct a show there.

I like being on this side of the table, but I know I can’t do it forever. The more I meet younger Genies, the more I realize “Hey, there’s some younger bothers out there who can do it.” So why don’t I take the knowledge that I’ve learned, go behind the table and take some of these young talents who I know are amazing, and help them get to where they want to get to? I am loving this era of my career, but I’m also looking forward to being behind the table and helping to bridge the gap for others to come up and do what they want to do.

(all photos by Reed Flores)

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be presented November 29 – December 24, 2023 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and more information visit TheatreWorks.org or call (877)-662-8978.




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